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James Ensor: Mystic Death of a Theologian

Between 1886 and 1891 James Ensor reworked a drawing that he had made around 1880. The title from the reworked drawing was curious: The Mystic Death of a Theologian (Elated Monks Claim the Body of the Theologian Sus Ovis, in Spite of the Resisting Bishop Friton or Friston (1). In 1892, the work received its more well- known title from Eugène Demolder, the Mysticl Death of a Theologian (2).

The drawing is 178 by 157,5 cm and is dated 1880 (on the lower right). The darker central portions, most likely executed at the Royal Academy for Fine Arts in Brussels, depicts a group of believers and choirboys, gathered around a priestly figure with arms raised, appearing to incite the group into action. Ensor had expanded upon the composition on a number of vellum papers (3). Ensor added elements that were inspired by the oil painting The Plague of Tournai in 1095 from 1882 by the Belgian historical painter Louis Gallait (Museum of Fine Arts, Doornik/Tournai), specifically a procession led by a bishop who is carrying a holy statue into a church (4).

Ensor‘s composition also shows a priest at the head of the procession. He clearly comes to pay homage to the material remains of a  'Divine‘, with crossed hands on a sleeping bag, under an enormous crucifix with a grotesque Christ. Ensor replaces the corpse lying in state on a white sheet of Louis Gallait with the deceased Divine.

Central to the composition we can also discern a Madonna with a stolid demeanor who observes the confused spectacle. In the right portion of the composition, an enormous banner looms amongst the curious. Also to the right of the drawing a young girl appears to exhibit the same movement as the girl with the golden dress in Rembrandt‘s The Night Watch. The detail has meaning given that also Ensor‘s drawing is bathed in a Rembrandtesque chiaroscuro. This lighting effect is also to be found in Ensor‘s series of drawings from the years 1885-1886, The Aureoles of Christ or The Sensibilities of Light. Thanks to this effect of the surreal light that the composition radiates as it were, the memorial scene metamorphises into a dreamy and fantastic spectacle.

The title of the drawing is puzzling at first glance but lends the true meaning to the composition. The name 'Sus-Ovis‘ is a combination of the Latin words 'sus‘ (swine) and 'ovis‘ (sheep). The names 'Fritón‘ or 'Frestón‘ find their origin in the seventh chapter of the first volume of Cervantes‘ Don Quixote:

'No,‘ said the niece, ̳it was not the devil but an enchanter who came upon a cloud one night, the day after your Grace left here; dismounting from a serpent that he rode, he entered your study, and I don‘t know what all he did there, but after a bit he went flying off through the roof, leaving the house full of smoke; and when we went to see what he had done, there was no study and not a book in sight. There is one thing, though, that the housekeeper and I remember very well: at the time the wicked old fellow left, he cried out in a loud voice that it was all on account of a secret enmity that he bore the owner of those books and that study, and that is why he had done the mischief in this house which we would discover. He also said that he was called Muñatón the Magician.‘
'Festón, he should have said,‘ remarked Don Quixote.
'I can‘t say as to that,‘ replied the housekeeper, 'whether he was called Frestón or Fritón all I know is that his name ended in a tón.‘ (5)

Other proper names ending in '-on‘ are mentioned in the Vita Sancti Popponis abbatis Stabulensis (11th Century), hagiography of the abbot Poppo or Poppon of Stavelot, composed by Ornulfus, a monk from the St. Peter‘s abbey in Ghent. (6)

Ornulfus‘ version was later revised by Everhelmus, adherent of Poppo(n), abbot of Haumont, subsequently abbot of the St. Peters abbey in Ghent. A French translation appeared in 1626 in Liège. (7)

Poppo(n) wished to be buried in Stavelot after his death. His material remains, however, were brought to Liège by the monks on 25 January 1048. The bishop ordered that all cloisters in Liège must receive the material remains with ̳crosses, oil lamps and incense‘. Ensor‘s drawing probably alludes to the moment of 'translation‘ of the material remains from Liège to Stavelot.

In the Vita sancti Popponis there is also mention of the Bishop Wazo(n) and his brother, the young monk Gozo(n), a victim of horrific visions and demonic attacks, who later was healed thanks to the intercession of Poppo(n). By exchanging the names of Poppo(n) with 'Sus-Ovis‘ and Wazon with 'Fritón or Frestón‘, Ensor—with his typical sensibility for the mystic—wanted to avoid a literal interpretation of the tableau and in doing so wanted to conceal his (literary) sources.

We can also take note of the name, 'Crazon', ending in '-on' in the title The Devils Dzitts and Hihanox Leading Christ to Hell, a drawing of Ensor‘s from 1886 (Brussels, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium).

Thanks to his reference to the Vita sancti Popponis, Ensor obscures the reference to the scene of Louis Gallait‘s monumental painting, The Plague of Tournai in 1095. Ensor‘s friends and writers Eugène Demolder and Maurice des Omblaux both had a passion for Walloon folk tales and probably brought to Ensor‘s attention the rich mediaeval legends and mysteries. It is worth noting that the drawing found itself with Jean Portaels, Director of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels, when Ensor, at the end of 1894, mounted his first exhibition with oil paintings and drawings. This exhibition took place in the locale of the business of Eugène Demolders‘ parents in Brussels. This is witnessed in a letter from 5 December 1894:

„Je vous écris surtout pour m‟informer de votre santé. J‟espère qu‟elle est maintenant tout   fait bonne. Dernièrement l‟on me disait que vous étiez un peu souffrant. J‟aime   croire que vous êtes parfaitement rétabli. Vous me ferez plaisir en me permettant d‟exposer ma composition „La mort mystique d‟un théologien‟. Monsieur Demolder organise une exposition de mes œuvres. Il serait heureux si ce dessin pouvait être exposé. Cela dépend de vous, cher monsieur Portaels et j‟espère que vous ferez remettre la composition   l‟envoyé de monsieur Demolder. Je vous prie de bien vouloir m‟indiquer où et quand l‟envoyé pourrait vous la demander. Je compte sur vous, cher monsieur Portaels et vous prie de croire   mes sentiments les plus dévoués.‟ (8)

The question remains unanswered as to when and in which circumstances Ensor revised his composition. The first document that indicates to us that the composition was ̳finished off‘ in 1892 is the photographic image in heliogravure by the E. Aubry studio in Brussels. This image was taken in the study of Eugène Demolder, which was issued by Paul Lacomblez in Brussels. The drawing is dated '1882‘ in the margin. Emile Verhaeren, however, classified the drawing under the year '1880‘ in his list of titles of works at the end of his monograph. (9)

Regarding the drawing, Eugène Demolder remarks in the following:

„Voyez, par exemple, ce dessin: Mort mystique d‟un théologien, qu‟Ensor, en son amour de titres baroques et excentriques, avait appelé jadis: Moines exaltés réclamant le corps du théologien Sus-Ovis malgré l‟opposition de l‟évêque Friton. Des moines, amaigris par le jeûne, viennent, les bras levés, en leur minable bure, dans la fumée des torches portées par des enfants de chœur, réclamer le corps du théologien qui gît sur un matelas, les mains jointes, comme une statue tombale, au pied d‟un pilier énorme de cathédrale auquel s‟accroche un gigantesque Christ en croix. A côté de leur groupe exalté, aux noirs fiévreux, le cortège de l‟évêché s‟avance, porteur de grands cierges. L‟évêque marche en tête, appuyé sur sa crosse, un évêque court et gras, la figure en boule, l‟air indiciblement pappeux et repu, avec un geste bénisseur qui dénonce un ramollissement comique, et autour duquel s‟empressent les abbés du chapitre. Le corps du théologien, près de qui s‟agenouillent des femmes, rayonne mystérieusement sur les dalles de la cathédrale. Et celle-ci s‟élève formidable, dans un hosannah magnifique de lumière rembranesque, de prêche, de pierreries, de bannières flottantes, d‟architectures emplies de musiques, de ferveur, d‟enthousiasme, - atmosphère d‟une opulente religiosité au milieu de laquelle se dressent trois étranges personnages: au-dessus du théologien un immense Christ qui semble vouloir, arqué sur sa croix, avec son visage de vieux chef germain, descendre dans la foule, les mains sanglantes, pour frapper l‟évêque de ridicule; une Vierge, qui domine le groupe de moines, une Vierge   la dolente figure de mendiante, au cœur percé, et que coiffe une grande couronne lumineuse, pareille, avec son trophée de plumes,   quelque couronne d‟idole indienne; enfin, derrière le chapitre, s‟élève un Saint-François serein, une croix au poing, une auréole sur son front chauve. Cette trinité plane dans le ciel des chapiteaux et des lustres de la cathédrale, n‟ayant pour les discussions monastiques que des regards de colère, de pitié profonde ou de béatitude. L‟opposition des lumières de ce magnifique dessin fait songer   Rembrandt, et la composition, violente, macabre, sardonique, est digne de Goya.‟ (10)

(1) Original French title: Moines exaltés réclamant le corps du théologien Sus- Ovis malgré l’opposition de l’évêque Friton ou Friston.

(2) Eugène Demolder used the title in his monograph on the artist James Ensor, Brussels, Paul Lacomblez, 1892.

(3) For an extensive study on the drawing, see Marcel De Mayer, 'De mystieke dood van een godgeleerde van James Ensor‘, in: Jaarboek van het Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen, 1962-1963, pp. 151-158; reproduced in the exhibition catalog for Between Street and Mirror: The Drawings of James Ensor, New York, The Drawing Center, 2001, pp. 187-201.

(4) See Patrick Florizoone, 'Negentiende-eeuwse historische thema‘s en onbekende bronnen in het oeuvre van James Ensor‘, in: Ensorgrafiek in confrontatie, exhibition cat., Ostend, Museum of Fine Arts, 1999-2000, pp. 33-35. Herwig Todts, however, identifies the personage in the central portion of the drawing as Peter the Hermit, who urges the goup to take part in the first Crusade.

(5) Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha, translation by Samuel Putnam, Encyclopaedia Britannica-Viking Penguin, 1952, p. 19.

(6) Regarding the life of Poppo, see: Philippe George, ̳Un réformateur lotharingien de choc: l‘abbé Poppon de Stavelot (978-1048)‘, in: Revue Mabillon, vol. 71, 1999, pp. 89-111; Philippe George, ―Un moine est mort: sa vie commence. Anno 1048 obiit Poppo abbas Stabulensis‖, in: Le Moyen Age, vol. CVIII, 2002, pp. 497- 506; Henri Glaesener, ―Saint Poppon, abbé de Stavelot-Malmédy‖, in: Revue bénédictine, vol. 60, 1950, pp. 163-179; Paul Ladewig, Poppo van Sablo und die Klosterreformen unter den ersten Saliern, Berlijn, Puttkamer & Muhlbrecht, 1883.

(7) Nic. Hocht, Abrégé de la vie du bienheureux S. Poppon, abbé de Stavelot, escrite en langue latine par Everhelme, Liège, s.n., 1626.

(8) James Ensor, Lettres, édition établie, présentée et annotée par Xavier Tricot, Brussels, Editions Labor, 1999, pp. 610-611.

(9) Emile Verhaeren, James Ensor, Brussels, G. Van Oest & Cie, 1908, p. 175.

(10) Eugène Demolder, James Ensor, Brussels, Paul Lacomblez, 1892, pp. 17-18.

Xavier Tricot